Algeria's foreign policy swims in a sea of contradictions. Hours before the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Nikolai Patrushev, landed in Algiers at the head of a large diplomatic delegation to discuss a series of sensitive issues with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and the army chief of staff, Saïd Chengriha, considered the country's real strongman, the Algerian Defence Ministry announced in a brief communiqué the reopening of its embassy in Kiev, closed since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The gesture did not seem to bother Pátrushev, who was selected by Putin to head the FSB, Russia's secret service heir to the KGB, after he was appointed Boris Yeltsin's prime minister in 1999. Patrushev, now a member of the siloviki, the trusted circle that whispers in the ear of the Russian president, stressed at the end of his conversation with Chengriha "the depth of the historical relations that bind Algeria and Russia, which his country seeks to strengthen even more in the future".
The Algerian chief of staff said the visit by Putin's top security adviser reflected "the firm will of the two countries to strengthen their historical and strategic partnership... particularly in the field of military cooperation", according to statements quoted by Agence France-Press.
Pátrushev and Chengriha put on the table the issue that is at the heart of their bilateral relations, security cooperation. Russia is Algeria's main arms supplier. Nearly 80% of the equipment used by the Algerian armed forces is of Soviet manufacture, a figure that has made the Maghreb country the third largest importer of arms from Russia, behind only two giants like India and China.
The Algerian army is also reportedly interested in buying submarines, Sukhoi Su-57 stealth aircraft, Su-34 bombers and Su-30 fighters, and hopes to acquire new air defence systems to bolster its arsenal.
Chronic instability in the Sahel was reportedly another of the issues discussed at the meeting. The Kremlin has been gaining a foothold in what Algiers considers its backyard. Two years after their incursion into Mali, the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group are close to intervening in Burkina Faso following France's hasty military withdrawal, announced at the end of January. On this front, which is particularly sensitive for the Elysée, Tebboune sought to balance Algeria's position in an interview with the Parisian daily Le Figaro. "The money that [the hiring of mercenaries] costs would be better spent and more useful if it were allocated to the development of the Sahel, if it were invested in economic projects," the Algerian president said at the time.
"Most likely, in addition to the nuances of military cooperation, cooperation in the purchase of oil products from Russia would also be discussed," adds independent Russian analyst Anton Mardasov, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute's Syria programme, in conversation with Atalayar.
Tebboune made the decision to visit Moscow in May after a telephone conversation with Putin. The trip was originally planned for July last year, but the two sides could not agree. Despite technical disagreements over the content of the meeting, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said the visit would mark "the beginning of a new phase in relations between the two countries". At the meeting, the two leaders are expected to sign a new strategic partnership document that will strengthen their bilateral cooperation in areas not covered by the original document, signed in 2001.
Algeria is Russia's second largest trading partner in Africa, with a trade volume of around $3 billion in 2021. But the main indicator that characterises any strategic partnership "is not growing", Mardasov argues: "While in 2016 and 2017 the turnover of bilateral trade was $3.97 billion and $4.63 billion, respectively, in 2020 and 2021 it was estimated at only $2.91 billion and $3 billion".
Nevertheless, relations remain important. That is why bilateral contacts at various levels take place on a regular basis. In recent weeks, for example, Russian Industry Minister Vasily Osmakov has met with his Algerian counterpart Ahmed Zaghdar. Meanwhile, the secretary general of the Algerian foreign ministry, Ammar Blani, has received the Russian ambassador to Algiers, Valerian Shuvaev.
Tebboune also promised Macron to visit France in May. The president's cabinet has not yet specified which country he will visit first. This will clearly be a litmus test for Algerian diplomacy, which will be forced to reveal its preferences. Paris and other major Western capitals are pressuring the Algerian president to reduce his ties with the Kremlin. Moscow, for its part, seems content to hinder an inevitable rapprochement between Algiers and the Western bloc.
"Africa's largest natural gas exporter is taking full advantage of a new era of great power rivalry and an ongoing energy crisis," writes analyst Nosmot Gbadamosi in the pages of Foreign Policy. On the international stage, Tebboune's government applied to join the BRICS group of emerging economies, of which Russia is a member, and agreed with China to join the New Silk Road. In addition, Russia's invasion of Ukraine made the Maghreb country Europe's main energy supplier.
The economic situation is much more favourable than a year ago. Algeria's profits exceeded $50 billion, a marginal gain of $16 billion over the previous year, thanks to its energy partnerships. The wind seems to be blowing in Tebboune's favour.
"In principle, Algeria has many instruments and partners with whom it can continue to make trade-offs. Moreover, in the current situation Algeria does not even need to be very active, as countries such as France, the United States and Turkey are seeking to increase cooperation on their own, whether in the field of security and the fight against terrorism or in the agricultural sector," stresses Mardasov. "However, Algeria's pursuit of an independent policy has not historically been the strong point of its leaders; independence has even led to a protectorate, as such a line requires sufficient resources, which it lacks".
Washington's position also conditions the reality in the Maghreb. The US ambassador to Algiers, Elizabeth Moore Aubin, appointed at the end of 2021, is gaining more and more prominence in a region that the Biden administration is keen to support. But the undertaking is complicated. Tebboune did not even attend the US-Africa Leaders' Summit in Washington in December. Instead, the Algerian president sent Prime Minister Aiman Benabderrahmane.
Tebboune and the Algerian military prefer to maintain an independent, non-aligned diplomacy. A sort of third way to maintain their privileged relations with Russia, especially in arms matters, and to progressively gain favour with the United States. Significant in this respect is the imminent reopening of the Algerian embassy in Kiev, a decision that, according to Lamamra's Foreign Ministry, "is part of the preservation of the interests of the Algerian state and the interests of the national community in that country". It is also a clear message to Washington and Moscow.